Number one for English language teachers

Diary from Dublin: Secrets and stories, lies and loves

Type: Article

In her ninth diary entry, Ruth Powell confesses to telling more than a few fibs to keep the language learning moving.

The English language trainer of adult learners asks his or her students for secrets and stories constantly. We ask primarily so that our students produce the language by either speaking or writing, but sometimes we do it out of curiosity too. What did you do yesterday? What are your favourite hobbies? Have you ever been in love? All of these questions have sound pedagogical rationales, and yet they are also underpinned by a natural human curiosity. The alchemy here lies within the fact that the vast majority of English language learners will actually tell you their thoughts and fears, their dreams and phobias, the silliest of all thoughts and the most profound of comments. Some relative strangers can tell you, in a classroom, anecdotes they may never have shared with others and these tales can be shocking, strange and beautiful.

In return, of course, the English language trainer must also provide some stories and secrets for the group to devour. And, while it pains me to say this, over the years I have lied in the classroom. Oh yes!  I have told lies about marriage, hobbies, alcohol, sport and even my favourite films, music and colours. You lie to set the stage, to suit the group and to encourage the learners to gain confidence and come up with their own stories in the agreed language focus. Perhaps the biggest lies I’ve ever told were about my children, Sebastian (18), Tarquin (6) and Jemima (4). 

You see, I don’t have any children. Yet, one group of women learners I worked with for a short time were very concerned about this area of my life; so I invented some. Sebastian was almost grown-up as I’d had him when I was quite young. Tarquin and Jemima were younger and loved sea-swimming, football and cup-cakes. It was quite extraordinary because once I started I really couldn’t stop. As the women asked me about my imaginary offspring, so I invented new details about their colds and school parties, their weekends and personalities. It gave me a common ground with the women I worked with. It gave us something to talk about, and made me a familiar figure and someone with whom they could relate. I think that it’s ethically and morally perfectly justifiable, it’s just a bit of an odd thing to start doing, that’s all.

Lies or illusions and smoke and mirrors are essential in language classes when you want to make the constructed look effortless and the planned look spontaneous. It’s such a delicate balance of real-life stories meeting pure fiction but this arena has to be created in order to make it look as though it were quite accidental.

Lies and illusions in the classroom can also lead to further professional intimacy between the teacher and learner, and this can increase the trust, which can only increase the potential for autonomous-based learning. Very often, the lies can lead to quite wonderful discussions you could never have prepared for. Love is the topic most students like to discuss when we’ve accidentally driven away from the coursebook and are in a syllabus and curriculum-free zone. I’ve heard stories and secrets about students falling in love with other students, they’ve asked me about rumours of teachers falling in love with other teachers and, once in a blue moon, I’ve heard about the foolish and much frowned-upon teacher-student liaison which can bring nothing but embarrassment at best and unemployment at worst.

In my time in classrooms and staff-rooms, I’ve seen and heard about more romances, loves, lusts and crushes than I think you would in any other sector – and this is not surprising. What is surprising is that it doesn’t happen more often considering that your main objective every day is to get people to communicate with one another so that they can express themselves more clearly. We ask them to read poems, listen to song lyrics and write stories about their lives – the English language classroom is a breeding ground for love and it should carry with it an emotional health warning! 

I will miss it terribly. You see, I intend to reduce my teaching hours this autumn as I plan to take a backseat from the front line. I plan to continue teaching, but for only six hours a week instead of thirty or more. I know the gamble I’m making and I sense a little fear, as I’m sure I’ll miss the secrets and stories, the loves and lies of the learners and other trainers I’ve worked with. I do, however, have excitement for an alternate beginning in front of me as I wait to see what happens next. Let’s see what the colours of autumn bring as new illusions come to light. Let’s wait and see …

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